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An Authentic Urban BluesmanCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1998
Wells, JuniorJunior Wells, whose real name was Amos Blakemore, grew up in the south, where he was taught the basics of blues harmonica by one of the leading figures of the Memphis blues scene, Junior Parker, a near neighbour in the city's west side (and the writer of the classic "Mystery Train", later a major hit for Elvis Presley).
He was sent to live with his mother in Chicago as a child, and by his mid-teens he was playing regularly with Dave and Louis Myers in a trio known as The Three Deuces, which subsequently became The Three Aces, and, with the addition of drummer Fred Below in 1950, simply The Aces.
His work with that band brought him to the attention of the city's premiere bluesman, Muddy Waters, and at the age of 18 he was recruited to replace one of his major influences in Waters's band. The man he replaced, Little Walter, went in the opposite direction, enlisting the remaining Aces as his backing group.
Wells's harmonica style had been shaped by the work of Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson, and if he added little to their example that was original with him, he became one of the leading proponents of the style. He spent a year with the band, and also recorded the first of several versions of his best known song, "Hoodoo Man Blues" (using the Aces as his accompanists) during that time.
He was drafted into the army in 1953, which took him off the scene for three years, although he went AWOL for a time in 1954, when he returned to the city and both played gigs and recorded, before completing his spell of duty.
He played for a time with Waters's band on his return to the city, then reformed another version of The Aces, this time as his own band. He recorded in 1957, including "Little By Little", later covered by The Rolling Stones, and "Messin' With The Kid", which became a signature tune for the late Irish blues guitarist, Rory Gallagher.
In 1958, he began what would become a lengthy playing partnership with guitarist Buddy Guy, which came to fruition in the mid-60s. Along with most blues musicians, Wells had suffered through the downturn of interest in blues in the early 1960s, but was well-placed to take advantage of the blues revival of the second half of the decade.
The turning point came with the release of his Hoodoo Man Blues album, recorded on the independent Delmark label with Buddy Guy in 1965, which finally made both their names outside of the Chicago blues scene. The shimmering, vaguely psychedelic guitar effects on the title track (achieved by feeding Guy's guitar through an organ amplifier when his guitar amp malfunctioned) chimed with the mood of the times, and the group quickly began to be featured on the rock circuit as well as the more familiar blues outlets.
Wells's highly active stage act led to attempts to promote him as a kind of blues version of James Brown, and if the blues purists grumbled over his antics, audiences responded more readily to his ebullient, sexually-charged energy and showmanship. His partnership with Guy continued to produce recordings and live shows, and if the relationship was occasionally strained (Guy denied any rifts between them, but acknowledged that "I just get tired of Junior sometimes -- I look into his face more than I do my wife's"), it affirmed the international success of both artists.
Eventually, Guy's standing grew to such an extent that Wells came to be seen as the secondary partner, and the partnership finally dissolved in the late 1980s. Recording was never a high priority with the harmonica player, and the albums on which he featured in the 1970s and 1980s (mostly with Guy) were often recorded live, featuring guests like Dr John, Eric Clapton, and Bill Wyman.
He enjoyed a flourish of renewed recording activity in the 1990s, however, including a harmonica summit with James Cotton (the man who took his place in Waters's band), Carey Bell and Billy Branch on Harp Attack! (1991), the 1993 release Better Off With The Blues, and the acoustic album Come On In This House in 1996. He will be remembered both as a spectacular performer and a distinguished practitioner of the Chicago urban style of blues harmonica.